A world with no tenure

Why Santa must be a tenured faculty:
His job is for life.
He works one day a year.
He travels all over the world, presenting work done by others and taking credit for it.

In her latest post, Professor in Training (PiT) indulges in the favorite pastime of us academics, namely academia-bashing. Blogosphere abounds of that; one day it is widespread sexism, the next is rampant abuse of graduate students by professors, the next is the proliferation of inactive professors who, as they enjoy the unlimited protection (read: impunity) given to them by academic tenure, according to PiT spend essentially their entire career “refus[ing] to do any more work or actively try[ing] to undermine the efforts of others until retirement”.

I have no doubt that PiT’s lamentation is firmly grounded in reality. Indeed, I myself can relate to much of what she writes, having experienced as an assistant professor a work environment (a small department at a large state university with greater emphasis on teaching than research) very similar to that which she describes in her posts. I would be a hypocrite if I denied having been frequently as irritated and frustrated as she is, and having said many of the same things, going as far as wishing that tenure be abolished.
I believed that, while introduced to avert a hypothetical attack on academic freedom on the part of government or university administrations, tenure was creating an even worse problem by allowing, if not downright encouraging, inactivity, negligence, stagnation and plain mediocrity.

After more than a decade I feel much less strongly about this issue (even though I think that some of the arguments made by those who favor abolishing tenure are valid). Fundamentally, I think that the description given by PiT, while it may accurately represent the status of her own department [0] (or even of some type of department at some type of institution), as a general characterization of the average tenured faculty in North America it is way off-base, and grossly unfair.
The contention that deadwood, as essentially inactive tenured faculty are commonly referred to, is prevalent, or even a significant problem in academia may be popular among conservative politicians or others who resent academics for their own reasons, but has little to do with reality [1]. It is disappointing and annoying to see a fellow academic contribute to spreading yet another of those misconceptions about academia which are, of course, already quite common in the “the big, wide, scary world” outside it [2].
Studies after studies have shown that tenured faculty generally publish more, serve on more committees and teach more than their untenured colleagues.
Those rare cases of professors to whom the description proposed by PiT applies obviously call for swift action on the part of chairs and deans, and it is important not to lose sight of the fact that, contrary to popular belief, tenure in America is not a “lifetime job guarantee” (see, here, for instance). That chairs and deans are often reluctant to take such action does not mean that it can not be taken — it simply means that chairs and deans are not doing their job.

Be that as it may, whatever one may think about this subject, and I agree that there are good reason why academia as a whole may be better off without tenure, it is largely a moot point. Every academic system in the world features tenured faculty appointments, and I think tenure is here to stay [3], the main reason being that it is there now. Any research institution deciding to do away with it, would immediately put itself at a tremendous recruiting disadvantage vis-a-vis competing institutions. Its administrators, with their characteristic shortsightedness, may see it as an effective cost-cutting measure to resort to cheaper part-time instructors and do away with research altogether, but society would soon respond by branding that school as of lesser quality (and for good reasons).

And I honestly do not believe that a world without tenure would look very different than the current one. Any employer appreciates workforce stability. The notion that, if they could, universities would start firing professors like there is no tomorrow, is naive. I think the lack of mandatory retirement is a much more serious problem.

Notes

[0] It is the responsibility of a department chair and dean to make sure that newly hired assistant professors who are trying to get a research program going be sheltered not only from the most onerous teaching and service assignments, but also from any tenured faculty member who may have the tendency to patronize, annoy, intrude on, intimidate and even bully younger colleagues. Failure to do that amounts to lack of spine and makes one unfit for the job.

[1] Estimates as to the amount of deadwood in academia range from two to five percent. See, for instance, H. Rosovsky, The University: an owner’s manual 210-11 (1990); Brown & Kurland, supra note 12, at 332. In their book Up the university: recreating higher education in America (1993); Addison-Wesley, R. and J. Solomon, while making a powerful case for the elimination of tenure (Chapter XV), nonetheless state quite clearly (p. 254) that the “few… deadwood professors” would not really be a good reason for such a change.

[2] Will any academic professor raise his/her hand, who has not been asked by a friend outside academia “So… how are you keeping yourself busy these Summer days ? You are off work, aren’t you ?”.

[3] It might be appropriate to remind oneself that only slightly over half of all teaching personnel in American institutions of higher education is tenured anyway.

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17 Responses to “A world with no tenure”

  1. R Says:

    Isn’t it weird that it is always tenured professors who say that there is not a whole lot of deadwood and untenured or non-academic people who say that there are actually many like that? Where does the difference in experience comes from? What happens when you get tenure that, after some years, changes the perception?

    In my experience, in two big universities in the US, there are a lot of deadwood professors. Definitely less than 50%, but a quick count gives me about 10-20%. I am talking about professors who just show up on days they have to teach a class, do a miserable job at it and then disappear for the next day or two. I know, I’ve TA’d for them.
    Maybe I am missing something in my evaluation and they are, in some mysterious ways, not really dead….wood.

    Studies over studies show that tenured faculty generally publish more, serve on more committees and teach more than their untenured colleagues.

    I can’t see the whole article so I really don’t know how they did the studies, but if they just count the number of papers and divide by the number of years active as professors then of course tenured profs will publish more. Do they only compare tenure-track vs tenured? Or do they also compare lecturers vs profs. I get the feeling that it is very easy to tweak the results to show that one or the other group is more efficient.

    Every academic system in the world features tenured faculty appointments

    Not true. At least not where I come from and while there is not a whole lot of research (when compared to the US) the teaching seems to be much better than in the US. When I say there is no tenure I mean that there is no official concept of tenure. There is, however, a silent understanding that the longer the professor has been there the longer the administration, or whoever, needs to think before firing or punishing the professor. They can however just come in one day and terminate you if they want.

    • Massimo Says:

      Isn’t it weird that it is always tenured professors who say that there is not a whole lot of deadwood and untenured or non-academic people who say that there are actually many like that?

      Oh it’s easily explained, many postdocs and graduate students do not really have a clue as to what being a professor entails. They have no appreciation for service, for example, and what a terrible drain of time and energy it is — and it is not something professors ask to do, it is something that is inflicted on them.
      They do not appreciate how difficult it is to remain the one who does most of the actual research as teaching load inexorably goes up. They know little or nothing about writing letters of recommendation, grant proposals, grant reports, requests for lab space, filling out university forms for all sort of tasks, or dealing with equipment vendors, technicians, or hosting visitors…

      I get the feeling that it is very easy to tweak the results to show that one or the other group is more efficient.

      Nah, come on now, go to WebOfScience and do it yourself if you wish… count the number of papers, published in a year. Then count number of graduate students and postdocs supervised, courses taught and service assignments of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

      • R Says:

        Do assistant professors also not know what being a professor entails? PiT is just one of the new professors I’ve seen complaining about deadwood profs.

        I also think it probably has to do with the ranking of the place. I’ve been at two american universities, one top 20, the other one ranked around 80 or so. Many more at the 80th are inactive in terms of research and teaching. Yes, I quickly checked WebOfScience and the ones I am talking about haven’t published anything for the last 8-9 years. Also, when I was there, they didn’t teach classes very often and when they did… well I wouldn’t call it teaching but I guess that is a totally different problem. Now, at the top 20, it is significantly less people who are inactive in both research and teaching. The few that don’t do anything anymore are kept because of their big names.

      • R Says:

        Actually… I just thought of something else. It’s a question.

        If a professor doesn’t have students, and doesn’t have a running lab either, doesn’t write proposals but has discussions with people from other universities who do the actual research and they include his/her name in a paper… does that count as “active”, deadwood or somewhere in between?

      • Massimo Says:

        Well, typically this is what happens: the Faculty Evaluation Committee will meet (yes, even tenured professors are reviewed – bet you did not know that), and will go through the person’s file. They will look for evidence of research activity, typically assessed through publications. Publications co-authored with researchers at other universities normally are not frowned upon, as it is generally assumed that people are not keen on including random names on the author list — usually the person has made a contribution that the others feel is important enough to warrant authorship.
        Then they look at teaching evaluations (no other means to assess one’s teaching effectiveness, as you know), and service.

        At that point typically someone will say, OK, who’s going to call R and ask him whether this guy is deadwood ? Cause, publications, teaching and service only tell us so much, ultimately R is really the one who knows ;-)

  2. Professor in Training Says:

    You have misinterpreted what I said as I don’t remember suggesting that tenure be abolished – quite the contrary, in fact as I recognise the value of tenure in protecting the freedom of researchers. And you are quite right in pointing out that I was mostly referring to the situation in which I currently find myself although I also witnessed the impact of “tenured deadwood” at Postdoc U.

    That being said though, I still stand by my claim that a large number of academics are out of touch with the non-academic world and that this does impact on the programs they design and teach and the students they advise. Professors that had an uninterrupted transition from high school to undergrad to grad school to postdoc to faculty are well-equipped to impart theoretical knowledge but have little/no concept of how this information is applied in everyday situations/workplaces and therefore often lack the ability to advise students about real-world applications and situations.

    • Massimo Says:

      I don’t remember suggesting that tenure be abolished

      Nor did I say or imply that you did, although I think it is easy to make the inference from your post that you blame tenure at least in part. I took inspiration from your post to discuss that issue myself (one of your commenters brought it up).
      Your post, I think, is at least in part meant to give the impression to a non-academic that academia is ridden with indolent, inept, and incompetent tenured professors who have no clue about the world out there and would not be even capable to work at Wal-Mart. I am sorry, with all due respect to you and the deep sympathy that I have for your situation, this is a pile of malarkey. You can’t just go from one excess to the opposite.
      And I think you have a highly idealized view of how most of the corporate sector works — the one that employs the majority of people (big 3, Microsoft, big defense contractors etc).

      • Professor in Training Says:

        I don’t blame tenure per se, but the idea of a post-tenure review process would help to prod and/or weed out the tenured deadwood that exist in every institution. Having worked in a variety of settings in a full-time (ie permanent) capacity prior to grad school, I’ve seen first hand that deadwood staff do exist in the “real world” but also how they aren’t tolerated to the same extent that they seem to be in academia.

        And I would still contend that a lot of professors would be fired on their first day at WalMart … particularly as they would likely insist on holding a staff meeting prior to starting their shift in order to delegate responsibilities to committees to oversee the committees and completely forgetting to open the store and to make sure the customers were being served :)

      • Massimo Says:

        And I would still contend that a lot of professors would be fired on their first day at WalMart … particularly as they would likely insist on holding a staff meeting prior to starting their shift in order to delegate responsibilities to committees to oversee the committees and completely forgetting to open the store and to make sure the customers were being served

        And I still contend that you have a distorted view of academia, arising from the particular situation in which you are (of which chair and dean are to be blamed) — the above description has got nothing to do with the academia that I have known for 22 years. It is, on the other hand, very reminiscent of what friends of mine working in industry complain all the time.
        But hey, who knows, you may be right — oh, and by the way, I have an iPhone now, which can take videos. So, there !

      • Professor in Training Says:

        I think we’ve obviously had different experiences as I’ve seen evidence of ineffective/ineffectual faculty in every single college I’ve attended or worked in. As I said though, I’ve also seen it in health, industry and commercial settings too, just not to the same extent.

        Have you tried the hair growth app yet? Sorry, I had to ask :) You can take heart from the fact that I seem to have bricked up my beloved formerly-unlocked iPhone and am now only able to use it as a glorified wi-fi-equipped iPod. Counting the days until my current phone contract expires so that I can jump ship to AT&T … 204 days and counting. Grrrr.

      • Massimo Says:

        I don’t remember suggesting that tenure be abolished

        Nor did I say or imply that you did

        I take it back, you are absolutely right — I did say it. My apologies, I had rephrased that into in my post but for some reason an earlier version was posted. I am going to edit it now. Thanks.

  3. JaneDoh Says:

    I agree with all of the points you bring up in this post. I suspect that many people who think that eliminating tenure will get rid of deadwood have never worked in other sectors, where deadwood exists even without tenure. In most workplaces, it is very difficult to fire someone who is still showing up to work each day and doesn’t behave in a blatantly disruptive manner. In my experience, there is less deadwood in academia than in government and large corporations. All bureaucracies (not just academic ones) are resistant to change, both positive and negative.

  4. pablo Says:

    The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons (a well know den of trade-unionists) published, 7 years ago, a report on “Short-term contracts in science and engineering”.

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmsctech/1046/1046.pdf

    In the conclusions (p37), you can find a couple of recommendations that could, I believe, be applied to tenure-debate:
    “1. The proportion of researchers working on fixed-term contracts is too high. The starting point for any policy should be to reduce this proportion.
    35. We must end the damaging distinction between permanently employed academics and CRS. We must aim for security for all higher education staff even if this means that none is entitled to a job for life”

    I also love this one, on p 16 (I did love it before moving to an alternative career ;-) )
    “35. There may be an assumption that there is healthy natural selection and that the system prunes away the less able, that is “if you are good enough you’ll get on all right”. The evidence we have received from CRS suggests otherwise. Dr Robert Bradburne has left research after only two years as a CRS:
    “I have become increasingly fed up with being told by everyone … that I am too good to leave bench science, and I turn around to them and say “Fine, give me a job then” and they cannot. They can say “Well I am sure we can find you some funding for the next three years”. Fine. Then what do I have at the end of it? No guarantee at all, even though I might be the best scientist in the world”
    As with many other professions it is the most able who are able to find alternative careers. This is supported by evidence showing that fewer graduates with firsts or 2.1s are continuing in science, suggesting that it has become a less attractive career option.”

  5. Transient Reporter Says:

    I think the lack of mandatory retirement is a much more serious problem.
    This is EXACTLY right. This is EXACTLY the problem.

    Tenure is not the problem. What holds a department back are old fossils who don’t like change, can’t anticipate change – and certainly won’t embrace change.
    We need to implement a “Logan’s Run” policy for professors.

  6. Mad Hatter Says:

    Hmm…I have to say that my experience with “deadwood” tenured faculty sounds more similar to PiT’s than to yours. Of course, it sort of depends on one’s definition of deadwood. There are several tenured professors at my institution who no longer do active research. Some don’t even have labs or trainees. It’s not that they do absolutely nothing–they teach, sit on committees, have administrative responsibilities, etc. But since the primarily responsibility of faculty at my institution is to do research and bring in grant money, many would (and do) consider these professors to be deadwood.

    Based on our previous discussions, it sounds like your field selects much more stringently for those who are truly dedicated to academic research than does mine. Perhaps that makes a difference in the percentage of faculty who become deadwood.

    I don’t necessarily think that abolishing tenure will get rid of deadwood, but it definitely provides some degree of protection for those who are, shall we say, less productive than they might be if they were not tenured. Lack of productivity does not appear to be grounds for termination of tenured faculty at my institution…I’ve only known tenured faculty to be ousted for things like scientific fraud and other ethical violations.

    Then again, tenure does allow some professors to move into newer and higher-risk areas of research since they can afford to take a hit in productivity due to time spent setting up new experimental systems, troubleshooting, etc. So there is something to be said for that.

  7. Massimo Says:

    But since the primarily responsibility of faculty at my institution is to do research and bring in grant money, many would (and do) consider these professors to be deadwood.

    Well, the day those “many” have to start teaching lower division courses with 200 students every term, or serve as undegraduate or graduate advisors, or chair the reappointment, promotion and tenure committee, or serve in the faculty senate, or chair the department, and see how much time is left for research, maybe their own definition of “deadwood” will change.

    • Mad Hatter Says:

      Not saying that those things you list aren’t important, just that different institutions judge faculty productivity by different criteria. We don’t have any undergrads, so the most teaching anyone does is to give a couple of lectures per semester in grad school classes.

      Most faculty do give lectures, serve as grad student advisors, sit on committees, etc., and run active research labs. Since the research component is most valued by the institution, the faculty who don’t do research are viewed as unproductive in comparison, even if they lecture and serve on committees.

      So I don’t think the “many” will change their definition of deadwood at this institution. Rather, they might argue that faculty who want to do less research and more teaching/service should go to teaching universities where (presumably) those activities are emphasized.

      Faculty applicants in my field often choose which type of institution they go to based on what teaching-to-research ratio they prefer. The ones who come to institutions like mine are those who want to spend the vast majority of their effort on research. No doubt the institution selects for that type as well. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to those “deadwood” faculty that if they fail to maintain a certain level of research at this institution, they would be viewed as deadwood. Even non-tt faculty like me are fully aware of the level of research activity that is expected.

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